Unlike other Indian designers with a global presence who have a fulltime PR machinery and image managers working 24/7 behind them, jewellery designer Hanut Singh claims that he is very much his own PR person and runs the show entirely on his own. Singh says he has stepped into the world of creating jewellery not really by design, even though he has been surrounded by the finest of gems and heirloom jewellery pieces right from birth, thanks to his royal heritage as a prince from the erstwhile Kapurthala princely estate. The self-taught designer started his career first as a fashion editor for magazines like Elle and L’Officiel India, before he realised that designing rather than writing was his real calling (he tells us he actually wrote pretty well). Nine years ago, Singh took a small loan from his family to work on his first collection of 20 semi precious pieces created out of abalone shell, pearls and corals in a collection called Frutti di Mare or Fruits of the Sea. Needless to say, he sold out. Since then there’s been no stopping him. The designer’s jewellery is worn today by red carpet divas, queens of nations, artistes and heads of states. “With very small steps I started this venture and over the years, the business has grown very organically, if you know what I mean. Nothing in my life has been ever plotted or planned. My journey in jewellery took its natural course, things have developed at their own pace and over the years it hasturned into a business,” says Singh, adding, “currently, the entire gamut is run by me.”
While his fellow jewellers and contemporaries were busy sharpening their skills at design or gemological institutes, Singh fell back on his vast family experience of owning and wearing one-of-a-kind commissioned pieces of jewellery — the royal treasures of Kapurthala. Singh is the great grandson of the late Maharaja Jagatjit Singh of Kapurthala (from his father’s side), a connoiseur of fine jewellery and perhaps one of the first Maharajas to frequent the salons of jewellery houses like Cartier and Boucheron in Europe. He would commission pieces from these labels during the 20s and 30s. Equally well known was his paternal grandmother who wasmarried to Jagatjit’s younger son Karamjit (Singh’s grandfather). Sita Devi, aka princess Karam, was considered a fashion icon of her times and a muse to the famous portrait photographer Cecil Beaton and American artist Man Ray, known for his avante garde images. In fact, so stylish were Sita Devi and her husband that legendary Vogue editor, the late Diana Vreeland, then the editor of Harper’s Bazaar, featured the royal couple in their opulent home in 1937. “My family has influenced me completely as an inspiration. Jewellery is in my DNA. From a cultural and family perspective, jewellery for me is an everyday lexicon. Three generations of my family has been into it,” explains Singh, adding, “my grandmother Sita Devi was very sophisticated and spoke five to six languages with ease and was also a beautiful and well rounded individual.” The designer also claims that thanks to maharajas who took huge collections of loose precious stones abroad in the early 20th century to be made into jewellery never before seen by the West, a worldwide jewellery movement of sorts started. “This sparked off a huge trend globally and was known as the Tutti Frutti look. Houses like Chanel and Van Cleef had never seen such huge, uncut stones before and they crafted unique pieces of jewellery keeping these precious stones as the focus,” Singh tells us.
While the alumnus of The Doon School and Hunter College New York does not like to divulge what he has inherited from his family, he jokingly says, “some of it I am yet to inherit.” The fact that these signature pieces have played a big role in his career in jewellery design is no secret. One look at Singh’s signature style of marrying Eastern craftsmanship with Western design aesthetics and globally sourced precious stones, and you will understand the huge impact of his family’s personal collections and taste, on his designs. Some of his family’s royal symbols like tiger claws used as a pendant or his grandfather’s bejwelled kirpan which he turned into inspiration for gorgeous earrings, are fine examples. And this self taught designer learnt literallywhile watching crafstmen working at their craft. Singh experimented with stones, broke tradition by going with his instinct rather than time-tested design patterns perfected over centuries. “My design sense, I would say, is very linear and architectural. I try to stay away from bling as much as possible. Nothing in my work is heavy duty,” he tells us. Singh works only with 18 karat gold and uses over 30 kinds of precious and semi precious stones like Peruvian ovals, Japanese abalone shells, Afghani tourmalines, Persian onyx, black diamonds, white diamonds, Russian topaz, kundan, pink pearls and more. Strong influences from the art deco period, be it lighting, furniture, jewellery and Mughal architecture, are inherent in his work.
And does he design for men? “Yes I do rings, buttons, bracelets, cuff links and pendants for men as well,” he tells us. And being in a business which is hugely influenced by the gigantic wedding market, at least in India, how does Singh resist the temptation to stay away from the immediate mass market? “I have always steered clear of the Indian wedding market. The idea behind my creations is that a woman can wear Hanut Singh jewellery every day of her life.”
Singh also does not design according to seasons and does up to three collections in a year, adding new designs as he gets inspired.
The celeb quotient
The story of how Hollywood became acquainted with Singh’s fine jewellery could be described as something straight out of a Hollywood movie. Singh, of course, insists that this too didn’t happen by design and was more of ‘being at the right place at the right time’. “Beyonce and I have some common friends. And she saw some of my creations at a show and loved them. So before rushing off to Cannes, she chose a couple of my pieces.” For a photocall at Cannes in 2006, Knowles wore earrings and a necklace from Singh’s collection, who was then just another upcoming designer. “She could have worn something by more established names, but she chose my jewels simply because she loved them and wanted to showcase a young designer’s work,” Singh tells us, adding, “Let me tell you that these celebrities are paid millions to flaunt designer labels, but she chose mine and that was a huge honour.” Mary Kate Olson, another huge fan of Singh’s jewellery, especially loves his statement rings. “The fact that they wear my jewels, in their private lives, when they are off-camera is something I really treasure and value,” says Singh. Over the years, the label has had a loyal fan following with Katy Perry, Penelope Cruz, Queen Rania of Jordan, Naomi Campbell and more recently Madonna, for whom Singh created a pair of funky black onyx skull earrings on request. Closer home, friend and client Shweta Bachchan Nanda has gone on to say that Singh’s pieces can be worn with both western as well as ethnic outfits and the constant use of new stones and techniques is what she loves about his jewels. Designer Malini Ramani, entrepreuner Priya Paul of the Apeejay group and artists Bharti Kher are some of his other clients.